Why are we still asking questions about students repeating or being retained in the 21st century?

I was requested to publish an updated post on the research around students repeating or being retained in the same level class. This post was first published some 3 years ago and surprise surprise the issue hasn’t gone away. 

In summary I reported then, using  a research article by Helen McGrath on the topic titled: “To Repeat or not to repeat” the following:

It now overwhelmingly indicates that there are neither academic nor social advantages for the majority of students who repeat a year of their schooling. There is probably no other educational issue on which the research evidence is so unequivocal. There is also no other educational issue where there is such a huge gap between what the research says and the practices that schools continue to adopt.  

It went on the say that: Kenny (1991) has estimated that approximately 14% -18% of all Australian students repeat a year, especially in the first four years of schooling.

The article concluded :

• Repeating does not improve academic outcomes
• Repeating contributes to poor mental health outcomes
• Repeating leads to poor long term social outcomes
• Repeating contributes to a negative attitude to school and learning
• Repeating results in students dropping out of school
• Repeating decreases the likelihood that a student will participate in post-secondary schooling
• Repeated students demonstrate higher rates of behavioural problems
• There is no advantage to students in delaying school entry for a year in order to increase ‘school readiness’

The paper suggested other strategies like individual learning plans be developed for those struggling students or multi aged classes be set up so that children could progress through the stages with no stigma attached. It concluded that parents should have access to the research and schools should develop policies.

I now offer John Hattie’s work who in 1999 reported the following effects of what he calls “retention”

After one year the retained groups were scoring .45 standard deviation unit lower than the comparison groups who had gone on to the next grade and in many cases were being tested on more advanced material. Each subsequent year this difference became larger with the difference reaching .83 standard deviation unit for measures taken four or more years after the time of retention.

Being retained one year almost doubled a student’s likelihood of dropping out, while failing twice almost guaranteed it.

The negative effects are pervasive over all academic and personal educational outcomes, and at all ages (including kindergarten)

There is a consistently negative picture of the association between retention and race, gender, SES, and school outcomes.

For those unfamilar with his effect size figures 0.4 might be considered the equivalent of 1 years learning progress so when he reports a negative -0.45 he indicates that the retained (or repeated) group have regressed when compared to those similar students who were promoted. 

So why in the face of all this evidence do we still continue to offer repeating or retention as an alternative to students not making adequate progress?

We must address the causes of the lack of adequate progress and not offer another year, usually of the same material, in the hope that they, the students,  “mature” into progress.